An online learning community is a place designed to help users achieve learning goals of some sort through collaborative partnerships, including varying degrees of social networking and internet-based and computer-mediated communication. These communities may be categorized as knowledge-based, practice-based, and task-based, etc., and may focus on personal concerns, process, or technology. The types of online learning communities include elearning communities in which groups interact and connect solely via technology and blended learning communities where groups use both face-to-face and online meetings.
Learning communities may use technology and tools in a variety of categories such as instant messaging, message boards, content management, collaboration (through wikis or other means), social networking, blogs, and much more. In fact, the many new social networking possibilities have given rise to a large variety of new informal online learning communities. Communication may take place via textual discussion or using audio, video, or other internet-supported media.
Learning objectives may be developed by an instructor or may arise out of participant discussions reflecting personal interests. Formal online learning communities were used first at the college level but are becoming more common in K–12 schools.
This article takes a look at the more formal versions of these communities—often called learning management systems (LMS)—which are usually developed by professors or teachers to achieve academic goals via web-based services. The emphasis here will be on LMS available to K–12 schools.
Pricing for these products varies widely, based on the type of program and components involved. It’s best to contact the companies directly for cost information.
Keep in mind that this article presents a survey of these types of products, not a complete picture or thorough review of the marketplace. We’ll save an examination of open source programs such as Moodle and more informal communities for another time.
Desire2Learn eLearning Suite
The Desire2Learn Learning Environment offers a complete web-based suite of teaching and learning tools for course development, delivery, and management that facilitate communication, collaboration, and community building. The program includes built-in accessibility tools, measurement and assessment options, and standards-based technology. Learning Environment can be integrated with other Desire2Learn products, including ePortfolio and Learning Repository.
The program’s user-friendly design and online Help feature shorten the learning curve and promote speed in getting the program up and running. A strong social learning atmosphere is generated through the use of the group collaboration features and functions. Learning Environment also provides a built-in collection of evaluation tools for transparent assessment with advanced reporting features designed to enable data-driven decision making.
Desire2Learn aids the development of unique approaches to learning with a large range of customization options and a flexible infrastructure. Learning paths are defined and managed by users; import and course migration tools are available.
HotChalk is a web-based learning environment for K–12 teachers, students, and parents that adds a few different elements to the mix. These elements include a learning management system (LMS), a library of teacher-contributed lesson plans, digital content, and professional development for teachers.
The package helps automate much of the work involved in planning and grading, increasing teacher productivity. The learning management system is easy to set up and use. Teachers can quickly get online to develop and share standards-aligned resources and best practices, create online classrooms, develop student rosters, manage curriculum, distribute assignments and quizzes, create lesson plans, post messages, maintain an electronic grade book, and streamline other daily administrative tasks.
The hosted HotChalk application does not place any additional burden on a school’s technology coordinators to manage servers, back up data, implement security, or manage hardware and software updates. Schools can integrate the HotChalk learning management system with their own student information systems (SIS). Students can receive and submit homework, access their grades, and stay in touch with their teachers from any computer with an internet connection. Parents have constant access to their students’ academic progress as well.
JoomlaLMS is a huge web-based program with tools and functions including Joomla CMS, flexible course management, multiple language support, and advanced reporting and tracking. The rapid authoring software component helps teachers create content based on current events, provide multimedia material, and more.
A Quiz module enables the creation of advanced quizzes using a Questions pool with tracking options. Integrated live conferencing is possible, as is the recording of live events for later viewing. Activity reports are available for each student module. A Documents tool allows the uploading and publishing of any type of document.
Joomla offers a “pro” and a “standard” version. Excellent support materials, including help and video tutorials, are available. The services and support program can build a complete LMS to user specifications. As with most LMS programs, pricing is based on the maximum number of users. A downloadable free trial and an online demo are available.
SharePointLMS is based on the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 platform and integrated with Microsoft Office Communication Server 2007. The system offers a combination of distance learning features defined by teachers with a suite of elearning tools. The platform is web-based, has LMS features, and can easily integrate with Microsoft Office and Microsoft Office SharePoint.
Users can create an active directory for work, post and edit documents, track student use and assessments, generate reports, and create quizzes. Group and mentor rooms with file-sharing capabilities can be created. The collaborative tools include chat with webcam, threaded discussions, web conferencing with white board, and session recording.
Additional products and modules can be integrated and used with SharePointLMS, including Web Parts for building websites and setting up e-portfolios, WordForce for converting MS Word documents, PowerPoint- Force for incorporating PowerPoint presentations, and QuizForce for generating quizzes.
Thinking Cap LCMS
Thinking Cap, designed for working with groups, is built as much for use by the nontechnical user as by the highly skilled programmer. Interactive activities and assessments support a number of different instructional approaches. The program includes comprehensive templates for web and PDF materials that speed up the development of course and content work.
The complete process—including configuring user roles, workflow, notifications, and more—can be managed from one location. “Semantic searching” helps users find information in large amounts of content. The aggregation editor allows users to drag and drop learning objects and set sequencing rules using a simple visual tool. Content can be delivered to the web or mobile devices, or it can be printed—without rewriting. The content delivery can be customized for different audiences with unique needs.
Thinking Cap provides a team approach to designing learning management systems. Tools, assets, and other features are set up for five roles in subgroups of varying sizes—an administrator, asset creators, a delivery template designer, content structure designers, and content authors and editors.
ANGEL LMS 7.4
Blackboard and ANGEL Learning merged fairly recently and now offer an online Blackboardlearn + ANGEL Edition. In addition, Blackboard is offering ANGEL LMS 7.4, a program that can deliver K–12 learning through web-enhanced and online classes. The courses can be modified to meet the specific goals and objectives of schools, districts, or individuals through a technology-rich curriculum and differentiated instruction.
The ANGEL LMS uses technology to automate repetitive tasks and to eliminate manual grading efforts through an integrated gradebook. The system enables parent communication and electronically distributes and manages homework assignments. ANGEL LMS can be used to offer AP and credit recovery options, deal with homebound students, and support alternative and at-risk students.
The LMS also helps teachers by providing a platform for flexible professional development. The system’s interface design includes prepackaged K–12 themes and a theme editor that enables teachers to create their own themes. The program integrates with student information systems (SIS) and other programs. ANGEL offers a customer technical support team that can work with schools as much as needed. The program also offers host services and extensive customer support features and options.
Enterprise Learning Management System (LMS) e-Learning Solution v.4.2
SimplyDigi offers a learning management system, live collaboration software, and online learning products that can be customized for individual needs. After a day or less of training, users can set up systems for operation within a couple of hours. Educators with all levels of technology experience can work with the program to create courses, surveys, and tests.
The LMS provides all of the needed features, including authoring tools, downloadable materials, online tests and transcripts, centralized databases for reporting and record keeping, compliance tracking, and a course assessment engine. The system can be used to set up self-paced study and to provide live events for lectures and meetings.
The SimplyDigi LMS enables desktop and application sharing, video broadcasting and movie streaming, chat and message forums, and distance learning capabilities. All can be quickly and easily updated. The technical support options include 24/7 telephone support.
Learning management systems will be used more and more in K–12 education as school districts become more technologically proficient. The new Blackboard Mobile application offers an idea of the direction these systems can take toward highly portable handheld technologies that can follow students anywhere.
At the start, LMS were web-based products that could be used for the development of online courses. These courses included video and other available media; these communications pathways were used by a teacher or professor to guide student study, receive assignments, assess progress, and more.
Today’s learning management systems are evolving with more increasing sophistication. They can be used to present individual classes and to design and manage complete department and entire school offerings. Counselors can use a portion of the systems to be sure that students are in compliance with class, department, and graduation requirements. In addition, busing information, attendance, grades, maintenance, and every other technology-based part of education can be integrated into one grand LMS.
The LMS also can be used to display student assignments in the form of online art galleries, podcasts, recorded live sessions, or online slide shows—all of which could be made available to parents and other audiences. The systems can offer the opportunity to instantly notify parents and students of snow days and other school emergencies and events. In addition, social media including Facebook, Twitter, and texting pathways can be added to the mix in unique ways.
Many of these types of offerings can be found in schools today in the form of several different programs. The continual improvement in LMS technology offers a way to include all of these features under one umbrella
—and the opportunity to make each of them more effective for all learners and educators.
Charles Doe has been teaching for 39 years, including 20 years as a Title I reading specialist and 9 years as a media specialist. In addition to presenting and writing articles, he has been involved with computers in education for more than 20 years. He is also a longtime product reviewer for MultiMedia & Internet@Schools magazine. Communications to the author may be addressed to Charles Doe, Media Specialist, Hastings Area Schools, 232 W. Grand, Hastings, MI 49058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.